The following is a translation of an opinion column by Grigory Pasko published in the German newspaper Tagesspiegel.
Joyful Books, Sad Truths By Grigory Pasko There is a funny book in Russia, the Russian Federation’s penal code. It is funny because it is so far removed from reality that it is impossible to read without laughing, if only reality weren’t so cruel and grim. There are innumerable sad examples in the Russian justice system. This is particularly clear in the continuing harassment of the so-called “justice” relating to the actors in the “Yukos case.” Article 6 is called the “Principle of Justice.” It states that the punishment must fit the character and degree of social danger of the crime. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia’s most prominent prisoner, probably does not find this article particularly hilarious. On Saturday he completes his fifth year in prison, where he sits because of supposed tax evasion. He is denied release on probation because he apparently refused a training course in prison to learn to sew. To give an interview he is locked up.
Svetlana Bakhmina, another victim of the Yukos affair, has just as little to laugh about. The ex-lawyer for the company has been imprisoned for four years because of supposed tax evasion. The mother of two small children is in her eighths month of pregnancy and still cannot be released on probation, even though she has done more than half of her sentence and even the prison administration suggested she be released early. Now more than 50,000 Russian citizens, including Mikhail Gorbachev, have turned to President Medvedev with the plea that he give Svetlana Bakhmina clemency. Another article of the penal code, Article 7, describes the “Principle of Humanity.” According to this principle, the Russian Federation penal code guarantees people’s safety. Punishment may not have the goal of physical suffering or the abasement of human dignity. Does this principle also apply to Vassily Aleksanyan? The ex-legal advisor for Yukos is terminally ill with AIDS, cancer and tuberculosis. He has been in pre-trial confinement for two years. He has been denied adequate medical treatment. Just this week a court decided to extend his pre-trial confinement by three months.There are at least two more funny books in Russia, the Russian Federation’s constitution and code of criminal procedure. These say that the courts in Russia are independent, but in fact there is a complete and extensive dependency of the Russian courts on the executive branch. In the case of Khodorkovsky it is a dependency on the will of the highest bureaucrat in the Russian government. In many other, less prominent, cases the courts also get directions from lower bureaucrats.After Khodorkovsky was placed in solitary confinement because of his interview, the author Boris Akunin explained that after the Georgian Crisis the hawks in the government had taken over the leading role and pushed back the “pragmatists.” Now the hawks are nervous because Medvedev and Putin are attempting to repair the damaged bridges between Russia and the West. The unmotivated, rigid handling of Bakhmina, Khodorkovsky, and Aleksanyan is most likely due to the hawks, according to Akunin. They are the ones controlling the justice sector and the prisons. It is difficult to contradict the author in this, even though it may be appropriate to doubt whether Medvedev and Putin are actually “trying to repair” bridges to the West.There are too many funny books in Russia, which should be utterly serious by definition. The West, and in particular Germany, must not be blinded by these books or the nice speeches from the President while they are attempting to normalize relations with Russia. As long as basic democratic rights and human rights are trampled daily underfoot, relations with Russia cannot be normalized.The author is a journalist and has been incarcerated for several years in Russian jails. He was convicted of treason after he reported on the ocean dumping of atomic waste from a military ship. He received a special award from the Erich Maria Remarque Peace Prize for his prison diary “The Red Zone” in 2007.